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Mexico: Social media bill meets with skepticism

Sandra Weiss Mexico
February 10, 2021

A prominent senator from Mexico's governing party has presented a draft bill on regulating social media. But experts doubt that it will succeed, DW's Sandra Weiss reports.

Symbolbild I BigTech I Social Media
Image: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

When Twitter blocked Donald Trump's account in January, the alarm bells rang in neighboring Mexico, where President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is also a frequent user of the platform. He called the ban an affront to freedom of expression and a blatant act of censorship that set a dangerous precedent. "The Statue of Liberty in New York is turning green with rage," he fumed.

A month later, there is a plan to regulate social media in Mexico on the table. In record-breaking speed, Ricardo Monreal, the leader of the ruling National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) in the upper house of Mexico's legislature, has proposed a draft bill to curb the power of social media platforms.

The bill has been criticized for a variety of reasons. Some experts say that it is too bureaucratic. Others say that it borders on state censorship. Yet others say that it violates international treaties. Few believe that it will pass.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
Obrador is a big Twitter user for political purposesImage: Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images

Censorship allegations

The draft bill, which is 52 pages long and comprises 175 paragraphs, would grant Mexico's telecoms regulator, the Federal Telecommunications Institute (IFT), considerable authority over a new framework for blocking and removing user accounts, as well as the right to decide whether a service provider can continue operating in the country.

 Monreal has defended the proposed legislation as a means of restricting the power of private companies. He said that the state had to ensure that user rights were respected and that freedom of information and opinion were guaranteed. "A private company cannot curtail your freedom of speech in an unchallenged way," he said. "I am not bowing down to capital; I want to regulate it."

He rejected allegations of censorship, which have come from many sides, including from the Latin American Internet Association (ALAI), which warned that the reform would violate "the free and open nature of the internet" by creating a supervisory authority and treating a global phenomenon from a national standpoint. The ALAI also said that the law would violate the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

 Ricardo Monreal
Monreal denies censorship allegationsImage: El Universal/Zuma/picture alliance

EU as model?

Monreal has cited the EU's regulation structures as a model. However, his bill differs significantly in a number of areas. For example, social networks would be required to register with the IFT as soon as they had a million users.

Irene Levy, the head of Observatel, an NGO that analyses Mexico's telecommunications sector, told DW that this would be like a kind of filter that amounted to pre-censorship. "There is nothing like that in the EU," she said, explaining that while the EU had concentrated on data protection and protecting users from being manipulated by fake news, bots and smear campaigns, the Mexican bill focused on the question of who should decide whether to block an account.

For the journalist Leticia Robles de la Rosa, the whole issue is connected with the parliamentary election taking place in June, an important test for Obrador's government, which is under threat from a broad opposition alliance. "After blocking Trump, Twitter started targeting users who are spreading the Mexican government's propaganda and fake news," she said.

Possible distraction strategy

Levy said that the first reactions to the draft bill had been negative and that it had little chance of passing. She speculated that it was a distraction in the wake of the government's disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robles agreed that the bill had little chance of passing into law considering the amount of public resistance. "It's counterproductive for MORENA because in Mexico it tends to be users who are close to the government that stir things up on the networks," she said. "They would be the first affected."

She added that she had nothing against a regulating body in principle but thought that it should be independent and that it should operate according to objective technological criteria: "This is precisely what is in danger in Mexico, because the president wants to abolish autonomous organs." The IFT also risked becoming bogged down by such a political task, she said. "I fear that the initiative has less to do with the control of social networks than with the goal of sabotaging the IFT," she said.

Levy also pointed out that the draft legislation picked out only certain elements, such as the spreading of fake news, hate speech or the violation of certain personal rights, as reasons for closing accounts, but not bots and false user accounts. For this reason, she fears, it risks letting in professional manipulators in through the back door.

This article was adapted from German.